Reading for pleasure should be a priority for all teachers in primary schools

July 16th 2013 by A teacher, Hounslow, West London

No time for reading for pleasure? It should be a priority for all teachers in a primary school and I am disappointed that so many contributions from teachers on this thread appear to claim it has been squeezed out of the curriculum. This is ridiculous. All teachers have it drummed into them during training that reading real books is a core activity, and to assert that there are more important priorities shows a lack of creativity and that many have forgotten how children learn best.

I am lucky to teach in a school where it is appreciated that children learn pre-eminently through engaging in learning by way of enjoyment. Children’s literature is a vehicle into knowledge of space travel, growing plants, animals, difficult social situations, families, religion – for every topic there is a brilliant book, sometimes loads of them. Sometimes the story leads to writing or acting or discussion. Sometimes we just read. And I am not just referring to narrative here, because children need access to information texts just as much as they need stories. No time to read to or with children? How very unimaginative some lessons for our children must be.

But of course books are not just a conduit for learning; a brilliant platform for the launch of enquiry and exploration. They are a means of relaxing and allowing imagination to flow. One of my favourite times is when children move on from needing illustrations to enjoy a text: watching them sit motionless, eyes half closed, as they paint pictures in their heads to go with the story they hear. It’s at the time that illustrations and ‘films of the book’ start to become intrusive, that continuing to read with our children is even more important, and some have noted how it is at the very point that children have mastered the mechanics of reading that parents (and teachers) stop reading books with them.

We have a duty to make sure this does not happen, and it is not that hard. Instead of teaching phonics or grammar or spellings five days a week, teach it for four and read a story on the fifth day. One day a week in assembly, read a story. Get the children to read a story out. Get them to read one of their own stories. I admit I was worried about the lack of time dedicated to reading for pleasure so I set up a Jackanory Club, originally for our Year 2 children at lunchtimes and now as an after school club for the whole school. Much easier than running football or gardening, I get as many brownie points from the senior management team for this extra activity with groups of children who arrive in my classroom at 3:30, throw off their coats and bags and settle down on cushions to listen to stories – it’s an absolute win-win for everyone involved.

There was a lot of moaning from teachers about the imposition of synthetic phonics when it was made compulsory for us all in our Reception and Key Stage 1 classes – from me too as we know that children need to view reading books as a pleasurable activity for there to be any chance that it continues as a voluntary choice as children grow up (and, frankly, beginners’ reading books were mostly hideously boring). But this is where schools must distinguish between phonics readers and ‘real’ books, the former being a learning tool, the latter being all about enjoyment. Even here, though, the lines are beginning to be blurred as talented authors construct increasingly engaging texts using just 10 letters or whatever – which is no mean feat.

Ensuring parents understand the need for both types of book to be read is simply a matter of saying so in a meeting all about reading in the school, and then ensuring that both types of book are in the child’s book bags – enclose the Oxford Reading Tree book as well as We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. ‘Real’ books with their patterned language and rhythm and rhyme eventually become the books that are read by the child once phonics is mastered. Good children’s books have a surprisingly long shelf life!

Lots of parents are absolutely brilliant at reading with their children – whether they choose the real book or the phonics reader doesn’t really matter – and we encourage this with comments in a reading diary from teacher to parent and back again. Teachers should use a parent’s natural competitiveness over ‘what level’ their child is reading at to their advantage and ensure that reading – possibly only reading – is a child’s homework every week. I found that reading at breakfast time, when my children were at their most alert (although I was most certainly not) was the best time to have my children read to me, and this might be a recommendation for time-poor parents. (If children are not alert at breakfast time, put them to bed earlier, but that’s a whole different moan!)

Most schools celebrate World Book Day and have authors who visit and have libraries which are inviting and book corners which are enticing and cosy. Still not enough hours in the day? Try pairing older readers (particularly older readers who struggle with reading) with younger children – an excellent task for both parties. Books should be available in the playground at lunchtime – our SMSAs always gather a huge group together for a shared read just before the end-of-lunch bell, which means children walk back to class calm and cool instead of sweaty and over excited.

As for the parent of ‘George’ who wanted to read Alien in my Belly Button but could not find time because of the piles of other tasks sent home by the school, that parent really needs to remind his class teacher that he is seven, for crying out loud! What home learning tasks at that age could be so time consuming and arduous that they leave no time for a story? What a tragedy.

Maybe teachers need to pause and remind themselves of the fundamentals of teaching, revisit the work of the great pioneers of early years’ education and reconsider what is important: Susan Isaacs understood young children and the importance of fantasy and play in a way which seems to have been forgotten. A quick re-read of any of Vivien Gussin Paley’s books (but in particular Wally’s Stories, A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, or The Boy Who Would be a Helicopter) should help to restore order and I would be happy to lend my own copies to Michael Gove – they are excellent bedside reading and might serve as a reminder of how important books are for a child desperately trying to make sense of the world around them, learning to socialise and work with peers, adapt to classroom norms and develop language. We all want social and academic growth for our children but using books more and often allows this to develop in a fun and engaging way.

We are blessed by living in a golden age of children’s literature with authors who really do know how to engage young minds. Let’s use this wonderful resource properly.

A teacher, Hounslow, West London